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Announcements > Obituaries > Robert Roberts, Headmaster 75 - 86

Robert Roberts, Headmaster 75 - 86

You are warmly welcome to leave a message below, share your memories and celebrate the life of Robert Roberts, who we sadly lost in 2024.

The west end of the Great Hall has long been the place where, after their term of office, Worksop headmasters are, so to speak, hanged in effigy - from their portraits on the wall several of these gentlemen gaze down upon their latest successor’s responsibilities. Dr Henn rather testily perhaps, Canon Moloney benevolently. Dr Shirley enigmatically. Soon these portraits will all have to move up one to make room for another, that of Mr R. J. Roberts who retired last year. With what expression will his likeness look upon us in the future, I wonder? Can one do justice to a headmastership in a picture? Probably not. And certainly not in a page or two of The Worksopian. I do not intend even to attempt here a verbal portrait of R.J.R. or his term of office but, less ambitiously, a tentative sketch of his time at Worksop, a personal and, I suppose, inevitably subjective impression of a crucial decade in the school's history.

When in the early summer of 1985 he called a meeting of the M.C.R. after lunch one day, it was assumed that he would talk about a proposed change of routine, about some exceptional youthful achievement perhaps, or, more probably, about some exceptional youthful misdemeanour. Instead, he surprised everyone by declaring his intention to retire the following year. Retirement, rest, relaxation were not terms which we readily associated with him or with Patricia - we take it for granted that in their Devon retreat each is as busy as ever - and we needed some time to

adjust to the prospect of Worksop without him.

As Easter of 1986 drew near the tributes and presentations began: Mr John Millican for the Old Worksopian Society: Mr Winn for the M.C.R. at a memorable farewell evening in the Churchill Hall; and, for all the current members of the school. Richard Darwin at R.J.R’s last headmaster's assembly. Each of these spokesmen saw him from a different angle - President of the Old Worksopian Society, Second Master, Captain of School - but each of them in his personal way saw and showed to us essentially the same man of uncompromising dedication who, for ten years had given himself without reserve to the service of the College.

He came here in 1975 after spending 21 years at Fettes where he seems to have performed most of the possible variations on the theme of school mastering: housemaster, senior CCF officer, librarian,

play producer, rugby coach, sixth form tutor, timetable and curriculum buff and Head of the English Department. He brought with him a reputation as a workaholic with daunting standards of personal efficiency and once established here he proceeded to give ample proof that he had earned his reputation.

His experiences at Fettes helped, I think, to shape his concept of his position as headmaster. This office requires its holder to wear a variety of different hats at different times: those of diplomat, public relations officer, father figure, salesman, politician, buck-stopper, personnel manager, scapegoat, peacemaker and hanging judge, to name some of them. R.J.R. readily fitted on each of these as the need arose but above all he regarded himself fundamentally as what he had been all his professional life - a schoolmaster.

He maintained close personal contact with the academic shop-floor, carting his battered old Fettes briefcase into IV Form English or Remove Divinity. High on the list of priorities of any public school nowadays is the classroom and what happens in it. He certainly thought so and the school's intellectual temperature was a primary concern. He derived much satisfaction from the steadily rising curves on the graphs of exam results which he used to draw. With academic worth he linked closely the allied Woodard aim of fostering a genuine Christian spirit within the school. He regarded the chapel as the focal point of the life of the community and the Sunday Eucharist in particular as the Christian expression of that life. In the context of a national ethos which is in considerable measure post-Christian, this may seem to some an unrealistic ideal, but it is not an unworthy one and he certainly was not the man to temper his ideals to such a consideration.

However, Scotland is a land of contrasts and apparent paradox and even the most English of English residents cannot remain unaffected during a twenty-year stay. This may explain the hint of paradox in R.J.R. He was, for example, to all appearances a staunch traditionalist, an educational conservative, who stood for long-established values and regarded innovation with an initially suspicious eye. It is strange then that under his leadership the College changed more radically than it had done since Shirley's day. Before R.J.R. we were a boys' boarding school. Now no less than one quarter of the school’s complement is female. The careful conservative founded two girls’ houses, Derry for day-girls and, more recently, Gibbs for boarders. In September 1983 pressmen and television crews gathered here to interview, photograph and write up his latest appointment as Captain of School, Elizabeth Wilks.

He seemed too to be a very private person, retiring and self-contained. Yet at the same time he was a magnificent public speaker, invariably on his best form on Speech Days when even the most distinguished visiting VIP must have risen to his feet with a twinge of misgiving at having to follow R.J.R’s eloquence. Again, tastes and temperament seemed to mark him as a scholar rather than a man of action. His erudition is formidable but so too is his reputation as administrator of machine-like efficiency and as a meticulous director of the school's finances who introduced a new system of budgetary control. Every detail of the school’s life was his concern and he had an enviable memory for detail. And not just for detail but for people. He could address any pupil by his or her Christian name and recall without evident effort personal achievements, family background, academic prospects, criminal record and even birthdays. He never forgot a face and he met a lot of faces. He personally showed prospective parents and their offspring round the school, invariably carrying a large umbrella, even in bright sunshine.

The austere side of the Scottish character and his own schooldays in wartime England account for that side of R.J.R. which seemed to find much satisfaction in sheer physical endurance. He regarded us, I suspect, as excessively convivial and self-indulgent at first encounter. He used to speak with pride of the rationed, unheated rigours of his youth in the 1940s. And yet it was he who revolutionised the arrangements and the quality of school catering. And it was his comprehensive scheme of internal refurbishment which transformed the living accommodation in all the boys’ houses.

Perhaps the school mellowed him. Certainly, he came to enjoy occasions such as Guest Night and the Summer Ball. And Patricia, most gracious of hostesses, certainly ensured that any lingering puritan strain stayed in the study and did not venture into the dining-room. No-one however is free from all fault and his Achilles’ heel lay, it is said, in his lack of sympathy with mechanical tilings. He disliked gadgets. He despised television. Naturally this attitude did not deter him from establishing the Northcote-Green Centre for Craft, Design and Technology or the new computer centre or condoning the TVs, VCRs, word-processors and other high-tech classroom aids. Perhaps tales about the personality-clash between him and machinery, especially cars, are exaggerated.

One of the functions of a headmaster is, of course, to feature as a prominent character in a school’s mythology. So perhaps the suggestion that he regarded cars as expendable is just a myth. Did he really treat the upper ratios in a manual gearbox as optional extras? Did local garages engage in cut-throat rivalry for his custom? And did the successful one grow sleek and affluent and retire early to Skegness? Did the AA invent Relay with R.J.R. in mind? And did he really spend all that time on the hard shoulder of the Ml? Perhaps not. But one or two other chapters in the mythology have a whiff of truth about them. I have mentioned his pessimistic attraction to umbrellas. His approval of the Wellington boot as the only really dependable outdoor footwear attracted comment. So did the accompanying duffel-coat. He seemed to expect that if one ventured forth a storm or at least a severe squall was almost inevitable. Possibly this is so in Scotland. He explained that he had been conditioned by twenty years of watching rugby on the banks of the Forth in horizontal sleet and found it hard after this to adjust to the more temperate climate of the Midlands.

One cannot write of R.J.R. without saying something about Patricia too: about her delightful hospitality, for example, her organisation, her managing of those dogs, her unobtrusive work within the school, especially in connection with the chapel, her work within the local community as a magistrate and her tireless efforts in charitable activities. From the school’s point of view her role was

the indispensable one of partner and chief supporter to the man who guided Worksop through a critical period in its fortunes, at a time when national confidence faltered, when there were particular

local difficulties and when public schools were having to re-think their strategy. These were potentially dangerous waters. R.J.R. steered a course through them with courage and a sure hand. He left his successor a tidy ship, modernised, re shaped and pointing steadily in the direction we must travel - towards the future.

I began by talking about portraits. A portrait of R.J.R. is in one sense unnecessary: to borrow Christopher Wren's epitaph: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice - if you want a reminder of him, just look around. The school as it now stands is his memorial and his tribute in its physical shape, its spirit, its optimism and its direction. No doubt his portrait will soon join those of his predecessors. I wondered earlier what expression his might have: a look of quiet satisfaction might be the most appropriate.

Words by the late C.H. Murphy

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